The Blue Dress: A Short Story
Just in time for Valentine’s Day, author Guy Hibbert is sharing a love story from his acclaimed collection of short stories, “Paris Postcards.” The book is available for purchase on Amazon here. Hibbert is also the author of the novel “The Chateau of Illusions,” available for purchase here.
Hank knew you can get an e-ticket and do all that stuff online, but he chose to use Sally down at the agency and they mailed him the old-fashioned printed tickets. Logan to Charles de Gaulle, February 13th, 2006.
Jeez that made him seventy-six and Lil seventy-three! What the heck, we’re still going – no way are we going to miss it, even if the whole darned family kicks off. She’s just forgetful that’s all, comes to all of us. And he’d conceded a little hadn’t he? I mean buying first class and a suite at the hotel – another three thousand bucks from the pension, just to be safe and make her comfortable. The tickets were sitting on top of the bow front chest in his study. He looked at them every day, touched them and checked the dates, like he was in front of a shrine. They’d been to Paris every few years for forty-nine years, and now here they were once more, so everything was going to be ok.
He recalled the very first visit. It hadn’t gone to plan, the proposal. Told the story at his expense so many goddamned times – everyone still laughs when they hear it. Planned it out in his boyish imagination; a walk along by the Seine in cosy winter coats, soft candle light in the restaurant, accordion music, some fancy chateau wine and he would make his move, the young gallant, on his knees with a diamond for the indescribably beautiful Lillian. But he’d got the restaurant names mixed up. They got lost, ate at a crappy tourist trap on the left bank while he sweated and fingered the ring box in his pocket. But on the way back, across the bridge, the moonlight on the river – he confessed his dumb plan and asked her outright if she’d consider marrying a fool who couldn’t find his way round a big city. And they laughed and kissed and held the ring up to sparkle in the moonlight. He knew then he’d got the right girl. Stuck by her, like the old man said – commit to what you love son, see it through. And damn it he would. ‘No-one knows her like me’, Hank figured.
Lil was restless on the plane despite the pills. And he had to take her to the toilet and no matter what anyone tells you about the mile-high club no way can you get two people into those cubicles, so he had the door ajar and shouted instructions and hoped for the best. The intimacy was a new thing. Not the intimacy of sex, hell they’d known each other pretty well in that department, but now she had become forgetful about you know, going to the toilet and cleaning herself up and such. But it’s just old age. At first the indignity, the embarrassment. But soon we got it figured, just like everything we ever did together, we found a way. Thinking back, she was a beauty but never prissy, never afraid to break a nail. Didn’t we scrape and burn all the old paint off the doors, the shutters, the panelling and the porch until the house on the corner was peeled right back bare and ready for us to make it new? Nothing a lick of paint can’t make fresh. Or a wash with soap and water. She was just a tad forgetful that’s all.
Lillian wanted to close her eyes and lie down but the man wouldn’t let her, said she had to stand up in line and show her passport. The man was Hank, of course he was. He said, “It’s OK honey, we’re back in Paris, show them your passport.” The passport photo was her, it was Lillian, but looking unhappy. “I don’t like this photo of me,” she said. “It’s not me.” She slept in the cab from the airport. She followed Hank into the Hotel de Pantheon and seemed to recognise the lobby. “I love this place” she said, “We were here before, there was a piano in the bar and he played Brubeck. Do you remember?” She wandered down a hall, she was sure the bar and the piano man would be there, gentle hands sweeping across the white and black keys in the darkened room.
Installed in the fancy hotel suite, Hank walked her round the rooms – familiarisation was vital. “This is our home for a week hon; nice sofa, comfy chair, TV, here’s the bathroom, a shower and a tub, two marble basins – his and hers! Here’s the toilet, do you need to go? No, okay, so here’s our bedroom, wow, some bed hey Lil? Look at this painting, who is this by?”
She knew it straightaway, “Gustav Klimt” she said quick as a flash, and then Hank said, “Look at these flowers Lil – tell me the names,” and she said, “my flowers Hank, my lilies” and he kissed her and said, “I ordered them for you honey.”
Lil walked around the rooms touching the fabrics and the furniture. Why had they changed the curtains? And where was the kitchen? She sat on the bed and started rocking and chewing a nail. Hank put his arm round her and said, “Time to sleep now Lil, everything will be fine tomorrow.” He loved her like this, sleepily putting her head against his shoulder, like Elle used to do when she was five or six years old. Fine hair, silvery and wavy, twisted strands curling on the delicate skin of her temple, softly folded onto her cheeks. Like his, her skin was creasing and folding more and more with age, but he had long ago reconciled himself to the fact that they would never be young again. He loved her wrinkles which told the story of her life, all the laughter and some tears – it was good and honest.
Hank thought about Lil a lot. She was just getting more emotional, post-menopausal probably – she has her good days and bad like we all do, it’s completely understandable. And her memory goes pretty wonky too but we all get like that. She’s a fighter and she’ll come out of this phase soon enough. But for now, he knew he had to take extra care, so the next day before they went out walking he took time to check she was okay to venture out and she knew that it might be busy on the streets. “So, what do you say to a stroll around Paris, hon, just like we used to? You think your nerves can handle it? Yes?”
Lil felt good. Paris, Paris. Her man on her arm. The beautiful storefronts, the quaint side streets, the brasseries and bars. Like a movie.
She said, “I came here with Jonny – we stayed at the Ritz and drank champagne cocktails.”
Hank went along with it, “Uh huh, is that so Lil, and there was I thinking that it was me that took you to the Ritz, right?”
And Lil said, casually as you like, “Of course I know it was you. You played piano.”
Hank never played piano, but she was spot on about the Ritz, that was their golden wedding. No idea who the heck Jonny was but at least she remembered the rest. And she seemed happy, smiling and pointing out shops and buildings, holding close to him. She could be surprisingly affectionate these days, though sometimes cold and distant too. Truth was, deep down, it really troubled him.
In a quaint side-street in the Marais, Lil stopped in front of a vintage clothing store. She was staring at a blue dress on a mannequin in the window.
“That was my dress,” she said.
“How do you mean hon?”
“My dress, when I got married.”
“You got married in white sweetheart, I should know!”
“No, it was blue, it was this dress – why have they got my wedding dress?!”
“It’s not your dress Lil, it’s just a dress for sale.”
“Why are they selling my wedding dress?” she asked again, insisting.
Hank said: “Let’s go to that shop over there and check out those beautiful hats.” Hank eased Lil away from the shop window, but she turned to look over her shoulder one more time. “Blue silk,” she said.
She was over-excited, becoming anxious and tired. Hank hailed a cab and they went back to the hotel and stayed in, going to bed early.
The next day was Valentine’s Day and Hank had his plan. He was going to take Lil to a café on the quayside from where you could watch the Eiffel Tower light up.
The new day started well. He ordered them breakfast in their room. Eggs benedict, patisseries, fresh coffee. They sat by the window, holding hands. Still in their hotel dressing gowns they got comfy on the plush sofa and watched ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, Lil’s favourite movie. It was just like old times thought Hank. Later they went and had tea in the hotel café and Lillian enjoyed watching the people come and go, commenting on the new fashions on display. Back in the room she said she wanted a bath, so Hank went to run it. He liked to get the water right for her. He looked at the expensive bottles of creams and lotions and poured in something called ‘Mousse de Bain – Camelia’. Way too much! The bubbles were everywhere. “Hey Lil, check out the biggest bubble bath in the world!”
There was no answer. Not in the living room. She must be in the bedroom he thought. Not there. What the heck? “Lil, Lil!” he called. He looked around, the cupboard, the lobby? Nope. With rising panic, he went to the windows, but they showed no sign of being touched. He ran to the door and looked out both ways down the corridor – empty.
Hank grabbed his keys and his wallet and phone and ran along to the lift pressing the button again and again to hurry it up. His heart was beating fast, too fast. On the ground floor he burst out of the lift, pushing past people with suitcases, praying she would be there in the lobby, but still nothing. Then he remembered the piano man and she had thought it was down the hall, so he set off that way, sure that he would find her. But there was no bar, no piano, just some seminar rooms, all empty. “Jesus Christ!” he said.
Hank held his head in his hands. What the hell have I done? Where is she? What do I do now!? Okay fella, calm down, let’s go tell the manager and get some help – there’s gotta be a simple explanation. And all the while he’s explaining to the clerk at the desk, he’s thinking, ‘How will I forgive myself? How will I explain this to the kids?’ And the clerk says “Well, Monsieur I expect your wife has just gone for a promenade or gone shopping”. “No, you don’t understand – you see she is a little forgetful. She wouldn’t just do that”. But then she would Hank, she would, she’s already done it several times back home, he thought to himself.
“Please have a glass of water Monsieur and sit down for a minute, I will get the Manager”. Hank sat on the edge of a huge leather sofa in the enormous lobby, feeling small, helpless and old. He felt palpitations coming on. He drank the cool water and took a heart pill. “Okay, think, think, where would she go?”
The Manager appeared and sat with him. He listened carefully to what Hank had to say and then he said,
“Monsieur, if you are worried about your wife then we should report it now to the police as a missing person, and they will investigate.”
‘The police’ Hank thought with rising alarm. A missing person? Yes, I guess that’s what she is. It sounded ominous.
But then he looked across to the reception desk where a woman in a cream and blue dress was checking in and it dawned on him.
“I think I know where she might be!” he said.
“You know?” said the Manager, “so what is going on?”
“I have an idea where I can find her. There’s a boutique a few blocks away – one of those places selling fancy second hand clothes – we walked past it yesterday and there was this blue dress. I am sure that’s where she has gone!”
“Okay, said the manager, “Let me take you there by car – do you know the street?”
“I think I can show you” said Hank, and five minutes later they were in a Mercedes pulling away from the hotel entrance and Hank was looking at everyone he could see, catching glimpses of any elderly women in case they were Lil, even though they didn’t look like her; trying to remember what she had on. White slacks? Pink or blue blouse? What if he was wrong? What if she was lost? Would she do something stupid?
The car waited for what seemed an eternity at traffic lights. He felt so bad, felt guilty, suddenly felt very alone. He decided to text his daughter. He was slow at texting, didn’t use it much, didn’t know what to say. “Hi Elle. I have lost Mum. But I think I know where she is. Going to find her. I am sorry. Pop.” SEND.
To his amazement it was just a few seconds before his phone pinged and a message from Elle was there on the screen. “What do you mean you have LOST her!! I told you not to take her!! Have you called the Police? OMG, where did you see her last?”
Big mistake, in retrospect, sending that text. Must have been the stress and a guilty conscience. They drove up and down streets that looked vaguely familiar, but there was no sign of the store. It had been different on foot. Then Hank remembered they had passed one of those Jewish bakeries before she saw the dress. The Manager did a U turn and headed down a side street, then suddenly across the road, thank God, there was the bakery and a few doors down the boutique and they double-parked right in front. The blue dress was not in the window. Good or bad sign? He didn’t know. Maybe bad. They both hurried into the shop but there was no need to say anything more because, thank Christ, there was Lillian sitting on a chair with a glass of water in her hand. She looked up at Hank and smiled, just like nothing special had happened.
“Who is that man?” Lil said, looking at the hotel manager.
“It’s alright hun, he’s going to take us back to the hotel.”
“Good,” she said, “I want to go back to the hotel, with my dress.”
Hank tried to explain to the boutique owner. He apologised. Truth was, he was at a loss as to what to think or do. The boutique owner told him Lil wanted to buy the blue dress, but when it came to pay she had no money or handbag, then she couldn’t remember where she was staying and seemed confused, so the owner was about to call the emergency services.
Hank looked at Lil. Incredibly, she was smiling sweetly at him. “Don’t forget my dress,” she said.
The boutique owner seemed sympathetic. “Monsieur, your wife seems to think the dress is hers. She tried it on, but then she didn’t want to take it off, so I told her I had to wrap it as a present and then she took it off. It is a very rare dress this Monsieur, very fine silk.”
Hank knew there was only one option. He had to buy the dress. Turned out it was Chanel from the 1930s – at least that’s what the lady said – and to be fair you could see the original label. ‘Combien?’ Seven hundred and fifty euros! For a second-hand gown! But he knew there was no backing out. The boutique owner had the dress all wrapped, the hotel manager had rather heroically located his wife and was waiting to take them back, and Lil herself was sitting quietly expecting to leave with “her dress”. What could he do? The lady said that was a special price for him ‘because of the situation’. He put it on his Amex card, handed the fancy boutique bag to Lil and the three of them got back into the Mercedes and returned to the hotel.
On the way back, he received three more anxious texts from his daughter and he replied “I’ve got her. All well. No need to worry. Just a little confusion on my part. I forgot she was going shopping.”
It wasn’t enough. The next text from Elle said. “I’ve booked out on Delta tomorrow. You both need help. We need to bring her back.”
At the hotel Lil had her bath and went for a nap.
Hank reflected. He didn’t like it. Elle was always so bossy. Talked to him like a child. Lil was just ageing – comes to us all. But he knew he’d taken a big risk bringing her and he hated to be wrong about that. Maybe he was losing it too! He stewed on it. Then he remembered, hell, it was Valentine’s night. They were in Paris! What were they supposed to do – lock themselves in with room service? No way! He had a plan and he was sticking to it.
At about six in the evening he woke Lillian and told her to get dressed up, make-up, jewellery, “The full works honey, like we used to” and to put on the blue dress.
“Am I getting married again?” asked Lil.
Hank ran along with it and said, “You sure are darling, you sure are” and Lil seemed very pleased with this response.
In the cab Lil asked, “Where are we going?” again and again.
Hank tried explaining where the café was, but the answers didn’t seem to suit her, so instead he said, “We’re going for a date”.
In the café they sat under a striped awning with the warmth of overhead heaters keeping off the chilly February air. They could see the Eiffel Tower clearly across the Seine. Lillian took off her coat and sat there admiring the silk sapphire weave of her dress. Hank ordered Kir Royales and when the waiter brought the drinks and as they arrived he raised his glass towards her and said “Santé my darling”.
“Santé means health in French,” replied Lil.
Truth was, she didn’t have much conversation anymore and what she did have was pretty disjointed.
She seemed in her own world a lot, so he’d kind of got used to spending more time just thinking to himself or observing. He saw a French family eating dinner together, three generations chatting animatedly. It being Valentine’s there were a lot of couples out for the evening. A good-looking pair of youngsters couldn’t keep their hands off each other. Could he remember those times with Lil? He knew he was hot for her way back then, but he couldn’t quite imagine what that really felt like any more. But it didn’t matter. They had made a marriage, raised three good kids, seen a bit of the world, made some great buddies and helped some good causes along the way. It had been a life worth living. His Dad would be proud. And all through his adult life there had been Lillian, woven like a silk thread into his very being. He looked across at her. The dress was gorgeous but it sure was too big for her, yet it didn’t seem to matter to her – if anything it leant her a kind of radiance and, what was the word, I guess, elegance, yes, she looked elegant. And he just couldn’t take on board the idea that he was losing her. They were all wrong, she was just going a bit dotty and god knows we are all like that sometimes. But the text from Elle had hit home hard, had penetrated his stubborn old skin. Lil wasn’t right in the head anymore. Heck, more often nowadays Lil wasn’t even Lil anymore and sometimes she didn’t recognise him. I guess they are all right and I’m stupidly, stubbornly wrong. Wrong to keep pretending. Wrong to bring her to Paris.
What brought him out of his reverie was a sudden wave of chatter and commentary and he looked up to find that the lights on the tower were twinkling and everyone’s eyes turned to admire the spectacle. No doubt about it – that is one of the prettiest things you can see. He reached across the table and took hold of Lil’s hand. She was absorbed watching the display of lights – she looked quickly at him and he caught a reflection in her eyes, a reflection not just of twinkling lights but of something deeper and more personal, like she was looking right into his soul.
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Then Lil started speaking.
“I remember when we went to Rome and one evening you took me to the Villa d’Este with all those fountains. I had walked so far that day, my feet were tired and sore, and you said take your shoes off and bathe them in one of the fountains, and I did. We watched the sun go down over the hills.”
And then she said, “I remember when Michael and Jo-Anne and Elle were little, and we spent Christmas in Vermont and there was an enormous tree, so tall, and we couldn’t afford the decorations, so I sat with the kids making our own paper and glitter decorations and we baked gingerbread men and made barley-sugar canes too.”
After a few minutes Lillian opened her handbag and without any fuss or fanfare she handed Hank a little bundle. He took it from her, puzzled. He couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. He remembered how, over the years on each visit, Lil had acquired the habit of buying vintage Valentine’s postcards. To be frank, he’d found them kind of corny and they were tatty and faded too. Some of them must have dated back to the 20s and 30s, but here they all were, with their cherubs, and little girls with flowers and bonnets, and countless pink hearts. How had she hidden them away and kept them safe all these years? What had possessed her to bring them with her?
Hank recalled how Lil had a kind of notion that each card was a token of distant love and romance, like a silent reminder to us from strangers in the past, as if to say: ‘We lived. We loved. Once we were here too’.
He turned them over in his hands now and looked at the old stamps and the fine writing – it was hard to read the French – but you could see words like “Cherie” and “Amour”. It wasn’t corny at all.
How could something so frayed and tired and old suddenly seem so beautiful?
Hank just looked at Lil, in awe. She couldn’t remember what she did this morning or even half an hour ago, but she could unearth all these beautiful memories. He could hardly keep from shedding a tear. Was she really back? Or was this some devilish trick of the brain?
Maybe she was back for good. How perfect that would be. He would tell them, ‘Paris brought her back to me’.
But Hank had a question he had long been afraid to ask her, because he was so afraid of the answer. Yet something about the moment made him do it. Ask that terrible question.
“Lil,” he said, “What’s my name?”
“Don’t be silly now,” she said, “I know who you are.”
“And what’s my name?” he asked again.
But Lil said nothing and looked towards the Eiffel Tower as if the magical lights might reappear and bring her an answer.
“You’re the very nice man that takes care of me,” she said.
Paris would not bring her back. He gazed over at her; okay he knew deep down it wasn’t going to be the same, but for now she was still a kind of Lillian, she was still present in his life, just in her own different way, and he still loved her, this version of her. Aren’t we all different versions of ourselves at times?
Hank searched for the right thing to say, something that might be special in Lillian’s new world.
He said, “You look so beautiful in your blue dress. Will you marry me?”
Lil smiled at him, a shy little girl smile, and she looked down at her diamond engagement ring and her gold band.
“Now you must know that’s impossible,” she said, “I’m a happily married woman.”
Lead photo credit : Eiffel Tower. © Pixabay